Some kind of personality switch seems to have affected both children upon entering the house we are staying in.
“I feel like going for a walk,” announces the younger.
“Does anyone want to do this puzzle with me?” asks the elder.
After her walk, the younger finds me in the kitchen starting to make dinner.
“How can I help?” she asks.
Cousin T. gets in late, the epic journey from London to Iona made more epic by his sleeper train arriving late into Glasgow, causing him to miss his connecting train to Oban.
After dinner he announces, “There’s a slightly squashed Alphonso mango that I brought from London at the bottom of my rucksack, if anyone wants some.”
Walking to the shop we pass cousin N. pushing his baby in her stroller. We discuss what kind of fish he’s catching these days and order some langoustine and mackerel for the following week.
My cousin L. tells us about a concert we might be interested in going to.
“It’s a benefit concert for the Scottish Refugees,” she explains.
Seeing my puzzled face she adds, “I mean, the name’s unfortunate, they’re a Scottish organization that helps refugees, not refugees from Scotland.”
A woman outside the shop warmly greets Mum, who has no idea who she is. At first we assume it’s someone Mum knows but doesn’t recognize but it turns out that the woman has mistaken Mum for her sister. The woman works at the Argyll Hotel, where my aunt often stays when she visits. We were hoping her visit might overlap with ours this year, but “groups of Americans” had booked out the hotel, she reported. Our friend from the Argyll confirms, while maintaining an admirable poker face, that the hotel is currently hosting an American group calling themselves, “soul collage.” A few minutes of intense speculation as to the nature of said collaging follows.
That night I half-jokingly announce that there are three subjects I would like to propose as topics for dinner-time conversation during the trip. 1. UAPs AKA UFOs: what’s the deal? 2. Is the Google AI really sentient? 3. Do we have free will? We never actually get beyond the first topic, which we revisit throughout the trip, egged on by the younger, who mostly doesn’t weigh in but listens intently. “it’s fun listening to you all debate these kinds of things,” she confides sheepishly. I draw a line, though, when the conversation starts drifting into the paranormal. It’s strange: I believe in aliens, and they don’t scare me—in fact, the idea of aliens being real makes me feel warm and secure in the way that I find it reassuring to hear the hum of other people’s activity when drifting to sleep. By contrast, I don’t believe in ghosts; and they terrify me.
The kids and I settle into a routine of watching movies on the television in the sitting room at night. At home we have a Roku for streaming TV and movies on our projector, so there is no such thing as stumbling upon something that’s halfway through. The kids therefore find the roulette of flipping through channels novel, and I find watching half of a mediocre movie just because it’s on comfortingly evocative of my childhood. One night we settle on a Robin Hood film from 2010 starring Russell Crowe. When cousin T. hears we’re watching Robin Hood he is excited.
“I wonder if it’s the one we watched in Islamabad!” he exclaims.
Probably not, I say.
It turns out he’s talking about the 1950s British television show starring Richard Greene, of which cousin T. was a big fan, although it also created certain false expectations later dashed when he came to live in England.
“I went to Nottingham and saw their so-called forest,” he recounts, disdainfully. “I wanted to see if it was real. It was very disappointing.”
“But then,” he continued, brightening, “one time I was in Stirling and I visited the castle Glamis from Macbeth (“Glamis is nowhere near Stirling,” Mum interjects). And then, when I came to Iona, your Uncle D. showed me the tombs of the Scottish kings including Macbeth—it was real!”
Cousin T. hasn’t been to Iona since he joined us here one summer when I was a kid, and this trip has put him in a nostalgic mood. He has also now warmed to his theme, which is emerging as geographical-sites-in-the-U.K.-with-literary-connections. He admonishes for me for not yet having taken the kids to Stratford-upon-Avon, and urges me to remedy this blunder on our next trip.
“When you were a baby your parents came to visit me when I was at Warwick, and we went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford and you stayed awake and didn’t cry during the whole performance!”
This detail makes me doubt the story, because I cry at everything—though, come to think of it, I shed not a single tear at Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood.
One drizzly day the kids and I walk to Columba’s Bay. We pass a group of Americans and whisper furtively about whether they look like soul collagers. Columba’s Bay is an especially good spot to find beautiful pebbles. The abundance is dazzling and almost overwhelming. It’s like being … in Target. You know? I decide I want to find a pink perfectly egg-shaped and sized stone. Once I start sifting through pebbles, I find it difficult to stop. I feel that I could spend hours, days, years, sitting here looking for the perfect pebble. I never do find one that is quite perfect but the kids do—a massive greenish yellow perfectly smooth egg-shaped stone, hereafter known as The Dinosaur Egg.
I wake up very early for the first several days because I don’t realize there’s a blind on the skylight in my bedroom, and the sky starts to get light around 4am. When I mention this, the others insist I do in fact have a blind and I am obliged to concede when the younger points it out to me (it was just so subtly flush with the window frame as to have been imperceptible to me) and then kindly lowers it for me. The next morning I sleep late and stumble down into the kitchen. “Can I make you coffee?” the younger offers.
How can I preserve this magic, I wonder to myself.
I haven’t been paying much attention to the news but one night I sit down with Mum as she watches the Channel Four News on the day of the earthquake in Afghanistan. I recognize the reporter—a salt-and-pepper haired man, speaking gravely in that unmistakable British-reporter-on-location cadence—as a boy I used to babysit—the son of family friends—now grown up.
“I want to learn to cook,” the younger announces.
We make chocolate chip cookies, and she writes the recipe down in her notebook. The next day we make shortbread, and she writes that recipe down too.
Cousin T. wants to make his Famous Greek Lamb—which I remember being delicious, a kind of stove-top roasted leg of marinated lamb. There is no lamb available at the shop and I am wondering whether we will have to get in touch with our sheep-stealing Tindal roots. But then we hear a rumor of someone on the island who might be able to sell us some Hogget, which (I discover) refers to a sheep that is Not a Lamb, Not Yet Mutton. The Hogget is savory but tough; but perhaps it would say the same about me.
Cousin T. also cooks abundant Bengali food while on Iona. Chicken, daal, rice, and vegetables one day; the next day, my favorite: daal pooris with aloo bhaji and fried eggs.
We have reached peak Tindal Kareem.
After an agonizing delay—stormy weather having stalled the ferry, which sent the younger into a tailspin at the prospect of her reunion with her cousin being forestalled—the rest of the family finally arrive—and amidst all the squealing and hugging and biking and sea-plunging and long-jumping and jellyfish-rescuing and hottubbing and jigsaw-puzzling and cartwheeling and G&Ting and karaokeing and Wimbledoning and scavenger-hunting that ensued, there was not a moment in which to jot down a single other note.